WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama relieved Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal of command in Afghanistan on Wednesday, replacing him with the architect of the Iraq troop surge, Gen. David H. Petraeus, in a move meant to flex the authority of the White House while safeguarding its war strategy.
In remarks in the Rose Garden, Obama said he had removed McChrystal with regret but was convinced that the general’s conduct undermined civilian control of the military.
“War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president,” Obama said. “As difficult as it is to lose Gen. McChrystal, I believe it is the right decision for our national security.”
An article in Rolling Stone magazine this week led to McChrystal’s ouster. In the article, McChrystal and his aides make disparaging remarks about civilian U.S. leaders, including Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, that were nearly universally denounced by military and political officials in Washington.
The choice of Petraeus overcame the biggest obstacle to removing McChrystal, the threat of a command vacancy that would slow down the Afghan campaign and force the administration to back off its timetable, which includes troop withdrawals that are scheduled to begin next summer.
In Petraeus, the current head of the military’s Central Command overseeing U.S. forces in the Middle East, Obama found the general who helped craft the current Afghanistan strategy and has been closely supervising it.
“The costs of replacing Gen. McChrystal at this point in the war were very high,” said John Nagl, a retired Army officer who helped Petraeus write the Army’s authoritative counterinsurgency doctrine. “But the president figured out a way to minimize the transaction costs, while simultaneously reaffirming his faith in the strategy.”
The comments by McChrystal and others violated guidelines set by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that military leaders should keep advice private and defer to the civilian leadership.
Despite that, Gates favored keeping McChrystal in place, according to a government official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Still, military officials close to McChrystal said the general believed his fate was sealed when he walked into a meeting with Obama on Wednesday morning.
The change in war leadership comes at a critical time, with doubts growing among members of Congress and the American public about the war and questions arising over the Afghan government’s commitment to the U.S. strategy.
But in some ways, the appointment of Petraeus actually could help the war effort, because he is skilled in areas in which McChrystal and his team were struggling.
While overseeing Iraq, Petraeus was able to explain U.S. strategy to the public and to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, even at the beginning of the unpopular troop build-up as violence soared and the approach seemed to falter.
In Afghanistan, U.S. and allied forces have encountered setbacks in two of the year’s primary campaigns, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai has voiced doubts about the U.S. commitment to the region.
‘Strength and continuity’
In Iraq, Petraeus showed he was adept at forging relationships, with local Iraqi leaders and with U.S. diplomatic officials. Under McChrystal, U.S. relations with Karzai have been rocky and the military leadership has been at odds with diplomatic leaders.
“If anything was a lesson from the Rolling Stone article it was that there was a dysfunctional set of relationships between the people who were supposed to be running the war,” said Richard Fontaine, a former adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “Petraeus has a history of working well with civilian leadership.”
Although the move is technically a step down in authority for Petraeus, Defense experts said that the job of commanding the allied force in Afghanistan is considered the most important, hence the most prestigious, in the military.
White House officials said Petraeus sought no promises or concessions to take command in Afghanistan.
But the confidence Obama showed by choosing Petraeus makes the Army general the acknowledged front runner to succeed Mullen next year as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior U.S. military post.
Sen. Carl M. Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, said he would hold a hearing on Petraeus’ nomination by Tuesday and predicted the general would be confirmed.
“For many reasons, Gen. Petraeus is a solid choice to take over in Afghanistan,” Levin said. “He provides strength and continuity. Indeed, he was the architect of the counterinsurgency strategy – he literally wrote the book setting it out.”